Senators grill movie moguls

Los Angeles Times and Cox Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Only hours after revelations that major studios used children as young as 9 to screen R-rated films, eight film executives offered varying acts of contrition to a Senate committee Wednesday.

But they were divided over whether to stop marketing violent films to underage children.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pointedly asked each of the film leaders lined up at a witness table before him: "Will you or will you not market movies rated R to children under 17?"

Only four — the Walt Disney Co., Dreamworks SKG, Fox and Warner Bros. — answered unequivocally "no," underscoring the complexity of reining in an industry that no longer speaks with one voice.

The equivocation by Universal, Paramount, Sony and MGM troubled McCain and other members of the Senate Commerce Committee. They put the studios on notice that the result could be more scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, which reported earlier this month that the entertainment industry deliberately targets children and teen-agers with advertising for R-rated films, as well as using them in focus groups to test such movies.

Reading from prepared statements, studio executives pledged to curtail — at least — and to stop — at best — advertising adult-rated movies to schools, 4-H Clubs and other youth groups, as well as on television shows, Web sites and in magazines with primary audiences under age 17.

They also agreed to expand their rating systems to help parents better evaluate films, with Warner Bros. planning to add the designations L for profane language, S for sex and V for violence. And all the executives said that their studios had stopped using children in focus groups for R-rated films, unless accompanied by adults.

Virtually all of the studios agreed to expand their new policies to include PG-13 rated films. But, asked to adopt Disney’s new policy of barring ads for R-rated films before 9 p.m. on its ABC television network, none of the other movie-makers would agree.

Some of the executives pointed to films such as "Amistad," the story of a slave ship in the early 1800s, and "Saving Private Ryan" as examples of an R-rated movie with historical value that might be appropriately marketed to an under-17 audience.

According to a New York Times story cited by McCain during the hearing, the documents showed that MGM/United Artists had tested commercials for the horror film "Disturbing Behavior" on children as young as 12, while using children 9 to 11 to research ideas for a sequel to "I Know What You Did Last Summer," about an icehook-wielding serial killer.

Mel Harris, president of Sony, parent company of Columbia Pictures, conceded that it was "judgment lapse" to try to advertise "The Fifth Element," a violent PG-13 science fiction film starring Bruce Willis, on the children’s network Nickelodeon. The network refused the ads.

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